Actress Barbara Billingsley, seen in Santa Monica, Calif., in 2007, died Saturday at 94. She was known for her role as June Cleaver, the warm, supportive mother of a pair of precocious boys in the 1950s sitcom Leave It to Beaver.
Barbara Billingsley, who gained supermom status for her gentle portrayal of June Cleaver, the warm, supportive mother of a pair of precocious boys in Leave It to Beaver, died Saturday. She was 94.
Billingsley, who had suffered from a rheumatoid disease, died at her home in Santa Monica, Calif., said family spokeswoman Judy Twersky.
When the show debuted in 1957, Jerry Mathers, who played Beaver, was 9, and Tony Dow, who portrayed Wally, was 12. Billingsley's character, the perfect stay-at-home 1950s mom, was always there to gently but firmly nurture both through the ups and downs of childhood.
Beaver, meanwhile, was a typical American boy whose adventures landed him in one comical crisis after another.
In an interview with All Things Considered host Guy Raz, Mathers called Billingsley one of the most perfect ladies he had ever known.
"She was so intent on presenting a good image," he said, "and when Leave It to Beaver was on she was like most people of that time: a heavy smoker. Within a few weeks of starting the show she said, 'You know what? I don't think the ideal American mom should smoke.' And she never smoked on screen, and she actually gave it up in real life."
"I knew I had a real mom," Mathers told Raz, "but Barbara was this idyllic person that I knew, and I was just so grateful to know her."
Billingsley's own two sons said she was pretty much the image of June Cleaver in real life, although the actress disagreed. She did acknowledge that she may have become more like June as the series progressed.
"I think what happens is that the writers start writing about you as well as the character they created,'' she once said. "So you become sort of all mixed up, I think.''
A wholesome beauty with a lithe figure, Billingsley began acting in her elementary school's plays and soon discovered she wanted to do nothing else.
Although her beauty and figure won her numerous roles in movies from the mid-1940s to the mid-1950s, she failed to obtain star status until Leave It to Beaver, a show that she almost passed on.
"I was going to do another series with Buddy Ebsen for the same producers, but somehow it didn't materialize,'' she told The Associated Press in 1994. "A couple of months later I got a call to go to the studio to do this pilot show. And it was Beaver.''
Decades later, she expressed surprise at the lasting affection people had for the show.
"We knew we were making a good show, because it was so well written,'' she said. "But we had no idea what was ahead. People still talk about it and write letters, telling how much they watch it today with their children and grandchildren.''
After Leave It to Beaver left the air in 1963, Billingsley largely disappeared from public view for several years.
She resurfaced in 1980 in a hilarious cameo in Airplane! playing a demur elderly passenger not unlike June Cleaver.
When flight attendants were unable to communicate with a pair of jive-talking hipsters, Billingsley's character volunteered to translate, saying "I speak jive.'' The three then engage in a raucous street-slang conversation.
"No chance they would have cast me for that if I hadn't been June Cleaver,'' she once said.
"People, when they watch Leave It to Beaver, they think of her as very, very straight-laced," Mathers told Raz. "[But] she had a wonderful sense of humor. … She was full of life. She was a very gracious lady, but she could just be so much fun."
Billingsley returned as June Cleaver in a 1983 TV movie, Still the Beaver, that costarred Mathers and Dow and portrayed a much darker side of Beaver's life.
In his mid-30s, Beaver was unemployed, unable to communicate with his own sons and going through a divorce. Wally, a successful lawyer, was handling the divorce, and June was at a loss to help her son through the transition.
"Ward, what would you do?'' she asked at the site of her husband's grave. (Beaumont had died in 1982.)
The movie revived interest in the Cleaver family, and the Disney Channel launched The New Leave It to Beaver in 1985.
The series took a more hopeful view of the Cleavers, with Beaver winning custody of his two sons and all three moving in with June.
In 1997 Universal made a Leave It to Beaver theatrical film with a new generation of actors. Billingsley returned for a cameo, however, as Aunt Martha.
In later years she appeared from time to time in such TV series as Murphy Brown, Empty Nest and Baby Boom and had a memorable comic turn opposite fellow TV moms June Lockhart of Lassie and Isabel Sanford of The Jeffersons on the Roseanne show.
"Now some people, they just associate you with that one role [June Cleaver], and it makes it hard to do other things,'' she once said. "But as far as I'm concerned, it's been an honor.''
In real life, fate was not as gentle to Billingsley as it had been to June and her family.
Born Barbara Lillian Combes in Los Angeles on Dec. 22, 1915, she was raised by her mother after her parents divorced. She and her first husband, Glenn Billingsley, divorced when her sons were just 2 and 4.
Her second husband, director Roy Kellino, died of a heart attack after three years of marriage and just months before she landed the Leave It to Beaver role.
She married physician Bill Mortenson in 1959 and they remained wed until his death in 1981.
Survivors include her sons, three stepchildren and numerous grandchildren.
Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.